My friend Aaron over at WQXR sent me some questions regarding Sunday’s Beethoven orgy. And here is what I answered:
1. How did you meet Beethoven?
When I was eight, I came home from having oral surgery to find volume I of Beethoven’s sonatas waiting on the piano—a convalescence gift from my parents. I sat down and started to sight-read them, starting with Op. 2, and I haven’t stopped.
2. Why did you pick this sonata(s)?
The two sonatas I picked are a study in opposites: the Waldstein is grand, virtuosic, popular, boldy experimental, and in the bright, familiar key of C major. It’s Beethoven at his most joyous—the joy of playing the piano, and of being alive.
Op. 78 is tiny (just ten minutes), little-known (undeservedly), and in the exotic key of F sharp. The first movement is an oddly textbook sonata form (two repeats!), the mature composer demonstrating his facility through humble, almost ascetic means. Apparently it was one of his own favorites of the 32, and I can understand why; it has the contained brilliance of a precocious child.
There’s some overlap, though. Both sonatas have a certain sense of melodic ease that didn’t always come naturally to Beethoven. They mostly forgo the characteristic moodiness of the Tempest or Appassionata, and lack the contrapuntal rigor that marks the later sonatas. And they have that endearing Teutonic sense of humor; the fake-out at the recapitulation of the Waldstein, the goofy chromatic flights in Op. 78’s scherzo.
3. What does Beethoven mean to you today?
I think pretty much the same thing Beethoven has always meant to everyone: a composer who wrote fascinating, strange, amazing music.